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Big Picture in Tiny Space: From Ancient Qin-Han Seals to Modern Seal Carving

Jointly Presented by Lee Shau Kee Library, Shaw Auditorium and Media Technology and Publishing Center

April 28 – September 7, 2022 at Gallery Room 119, 1/F, Shaw Auditorium

New Exhibits starting 13 July

Opening Hours

  • Monday – Friday: 10:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
  • Saturday, Sunday and Public Holidays : Closed

Due to campus access controls, visitors please register before coming for a visit.



Mr. Lam Cheung Chung, Collector

This exhibition derives inspiration from a passage in the ancient Chinese philosophical text, the Hanfeizi:

“The saintly man by seeing the obscure knew the manifest, and by seeing the origin knew the outcome.”

Though small-sized, the layout of characters in Qin and Han dynasty seals, their use of red and white coloured characters, and the exquisiteness of their carving has associations with the large and the profound. “Big Picture in Tiny Space” invites viewers to appreciate the large through the small.

Seals were used from the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States, flourishing during the Qin and Han dynasties. After unifying the empire, the Qin standardized the written script, established the small seal script (xiaozhuan) and created a system for seals. The term xi referred exclusively to the emperor’s official jade seal from the Qin dynasty onward, while the term yin denoted the bronze seals used by officials and common people. Retaining the antique rusticity of xi in pre-Qin times, Qin dynasty seals were carved in small seal script and their style reveals distinctive characteristics of the times.

Chinese seals are carved with white and red legends resulting in different imprints when impressed with seal pads: those with characters in white on a red background are known as baiwen (white characters), while those with characters in red on white background are known as zhuwen (red characters). Qin seals are mostly in baiwen with chiselled characters. Private seals are often rectangular, circular, and oval.

Qin seals are known for their distinctive calligraphic style: the characters are equal in size, the strokes are refined and robust, effusing strength, majesty, and grace. The beauty of Qin seals lies not in their physical form, but is embodied in the calligraphy which portrays a rustic, vivacious, and versatile charm.

Han seals inherited the tradition of Qin seals. Though still mainly in baiwen, some are in zhuwen, and others even mix both. Most seals are either carved or cast in a script known as mouzhuan which is characterized by simple strokes. The calligraphy on carved seals is carefree, uncomplicated yet peculiar and prominent. The carving is delicate, clear, and strong, endowing Han seals with a unique style. They display a rich variety of designs, incorporating squares and rounds in a balanced and exquisite distribution of space in white and red. During the Eastern and Western Han dynasties, different types of seals emerged; the craftmanship evolved to perfection, their beautiful designs and ornamental knob shapes also reached an artistic peak in the history of seals.

This exhibition supports the HKUST course “Introduction to Chinese Art”; it also aims to inspire a wider audience. It presents over 200 ancient seals of the Qin and Han dynasties, together with impressions of their surfaces on paper or clay. The exhibit also includes 42 seals by modern seal artists to demonstrate how Qin and Han seals have been classical examples for copying by all peoples aspiring to become expert seal carvers over the millennia. In addition, the twenty-plus seal impression albums (yinpu) on display show the variety of decorative patterns on the border frames surrounding the seal impressions. Decoration of border frames on album pages began with increased literati participation, and highlights their impact on the production of albums from the eighteenth century.

Lam Cheung Chung in the Pine Shade Studio at close of the Year of the Bull